The transition from the wormlike caterpillar to a creature that can spread its patterned wings and fly is one of nature’s marvels, but not all caterpillars are benign, and one of the most venomous has reportedly been spotted recently in Virginia.
Reports of the puss caterpillar have been made in eastern Virginia to a branch of the state’s department of forestry, the department said.
The presence of the unwelcome early-stage moth was reported in a few eastern counties to the division’s forest health team, according to an Oct. 6 forestry department Facebook posting. The counties were not named.
In the posting, the forestry department urged the public to apply the principles of social distancing and stay away from the curious looking crawler.
Insect specialists think that the name “puss caterpillar” commonly applied to the animal comes from a certain external attribute it seems to share with the house cat.
The name probably refers to its “resemblance to a cat with its soft fur and tail,” according to a report on the caterpillar published by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
But although mutual pleasure may be created by physical contact between humans an house cats, touching a puss caterpillar brings physical pain, specialists say.
Its so-called hairs “are actually venomous spines that cause a painful reaction if touched,” the Virginia forestry department said. Counting their hairy coats, they appear perhaps an inch and a half in length, somewhat smaller than the elm leaves on which they dine. They also eat oak leaves.
But it is unlikely that they will take over our lives and gardens.
“There are a number of other insects that will prey on them at different stages of their life cycle” the forestry department said.
So, the division advised those finding the caterpillar to “leave it alone and let its natural enemies control their populations.”
In time, according to the University of Florida’s institute, the caterpillar transforms into the southern flannel moth, which it described as “an attractive small moth.”
That it should appear in Virginia does not seem to suggest anything extraordinary has happened.
The southern flannel moth, the University of Florida said, is found from New Jersey to Florida and west to Arkansas and Texas. It is common in Florida but the largest populations are in Texas, from Dallas southward in the western central part of the state, the University said. But they do seem memorable in appearance, and have not previously seemed to be the subject of much everyday conversation in the Washington region.